Americans, Thugs and Nazis

During the summer of 2001, then-Director of the CIA George Tenet warned the Senate Intelligence Committee of a possible major terrorist attack in the United States. He did not specify its time, location, or method. The rest is history. I was ten years old when I first saw the footage. Plumes of smoke roaring across the Manhattan skyline. Terrified journalists attempting to keep their composure. Hundreds of persons jumping out of the World Trade Center, falling to their deaths, on my TV.

I remember feeling overwhelmed by the sheer physicality of it. As the World Trade Center groaned and collapsed, it was as though the air was filled with the sounds of bones cracking, of fluids leaking, and exhausted onlookers huddling together. It wasn’t just a terrorist attack. The sight of the Twin Towers falling was deeply sensual, and full of muscular reflexes, and we responded in kind.

As Senator Dianne Feinstein notes in the introduction to the 525-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA torture program, “it is against this backdrop- the largest attack against the American homeland in our history- that the events described in this report were undertaken.” The highly critical report began with an investigation into the CIA’s destruction of videotapes documenting interrogations in December 2007. The Committee initiated a wider study in March 2009, and completed it four-and-a-half years later. Feinstein brings up the context because it is critically important to understand how immediately threatened the United States government felt after 9/11.

The report is ghoulish in every sense. Even after years of retractions, and attempted censorship, it still manages to tell a disturbing tale. Beatings, freezing prisoners to near-death, waterboarding, prisoners being forced to stand on broken legs, and more. Many outlets have also noted that out of the 119 detainees still being held in CIA secret prisons, five were forced through a process known as “rectal rehydration,” a method of forced-feeding that was used on inmates refusing food and water. It seems to have been deliberately crafted to be humiliating.

For many readers, these excesses may not seem that surprising, given the atrocious treatment of prisoners at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The latter is important to remember when Dick Cheney’s remarks that “the report is full of crap.” How can that be true when six years ago, the Senate Armed Services Committee found that there was a direct link between the abuse at Abu Ghraib and the Bush Administration? Donald Rumsfeld and other top officials were scathingly criticized for conveying “the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees.” That explanation applies to the use of torture in CIA black sites as well. Cheney is well aware that these aren’t “loose cannons.” The Bush Administration built the culture of violence that permitted rectal forced-feedings.

Wearing Ghraib. July 2010.
Wearing Abu Ghraib. July 2010.

The physical nature of the humiliation is important. At the time, most criticism of the events at Abu Ghraib concentrated on the perpetrators themselves. Some analysts were intelligent enough to bring up the Stanford Prison Experiment, and wonder if some level of abuse was unavoidable in a prison system. Even fewer brought up how a culture of vengeance was born on September 11th, which turns every interrogation into an act of retribution for past terrorist attacks. When I watched the newscasts discussing what happened in Abu Ghraib, which continues to be downplayed, once again, all I could ascertain was reflex – not reason.

Could it be that after the loss of dignity and honor that Americans experienced on that day, someone had to be degraded and humiliated to balance it all out again? Did Lynndie England feel the Twin Towers falling every time she flashed a thumbs up at naked prisoners? Was this true for other terrorist attacks against American soldiers and citizens? I wonder if it was any different for interrogators in the CIA’s secret prisons. Do they feel the pain of victims of the World Trade Center attack every time they waterboard someone?

Analyses of torture are important. They help to understand how the violence can be a form of catharsis. Mainstream analyses of the Senate torture report focus on the findings that practices like waterboarding weren’t particularly effective. Not only does this ignore that actionable intelligence doesn’t make torture acceptable; it also misses a far more important point. Electrocution, waterboarding, and rectal forced-feeding are strategies to empower torturers, and their supporters, all of whom get to exorcise their own insecurities and sense of despair by projecting it all onto the prisoner.

Interrogating Omar Khadr. Guantanamo Bay.

Americans have been slow to draw parallels between the conduct of its security state, and historic enemies such as Nazi Germany. There are two reasons for this. The first is that there is a purely emotive demonisation of the Nazis in history textbooks and popular culture, which prevents rational comparison. There is even an adage called Godwin’s Law, which humorously argues that the longer an internet thread gets, the more likely it is that someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism. The popularity of the term reflects an insistence that the Nazis exist outside of history, and that any comparison to them is automatically ridiculous. This is extremely disturbing in an era when the prospect of terrorism encourages Americans to adopt Gestapo-like strategies in response to terror. Andrew Sullivan wrote the following in The Dish, in May 2007:

As you can see from the Gestapo memo, moreover, the Nazis were adamant that their “enhanced interrogation techniques” would be carefully restricted and controlled, monitored by an elite professional staff, of the kind recommended by Charles Krauthammer, and strictly reserved for certain categories of prisoner. At least, that was the original plan.

Also: the use of hypothermia, authorized by Bush and Rumsfeld, was initially forbidden. ‘Waterboarding” was forbidden too, unlike that authorized by Bush. As time went on, historians have found that all the bureaucratic restrictions were eventually broken or abridged. Once you start torturing, it has a life of its own.

The list goes on. Evidently, the freezing water baths used in Guantanamo Bay were initially pioneered by a member of the Gestapo in 1943. Even the defense argument that Sullivan cites in a 1948 Norwegian court case involving German torturers sounds familiar: “That the acts of torture in no case resulted in death. Most of the injuries inflicted were slight and did not result in permanent disablement.” It is as though waterboarding apologists have read directly from the text.

These parallels aren’t surprising if readers are reminded that more than a few Gestapo practices, and ex-Nazis themselves, were employed by the CIA during the Cold War. The CIA also helped train spy agencies like the Iranian SAVAK in similar techniques, and made liberal use of methods learned from Japanese torturers during World War II (the Japanese used waterboarding against American POWs, and were executed for it.) I could go on, and many others do. The point is that there isn’t that much difference between the freedoms American security services allowed themselves after the Second World War, and the brutality they deplored on the part of the Axis powers during WWII. CIA conduct in the War on Terror helps clarify that in new and disturbing ways.

It’s increasingly difficult to be optimistic about the future of American law enforcement, especially given the racism currently at play in the United States, where police forces tend to behave as though they were an ethnic militia. This could very well be how the US will remain for the rest of our lives, with global consequences, best represented by its thuggish intelligence services, who feel similarly disdainful of international law. The United States, it seems, has lost its self-awarded title as guardian of the free world. Senator Feinstein writes in the introduction to the Senate torture report that the United States “cannot again allow history to be forgotten and grievous past mistakes to be repeated.” She’s right, of course. But there’s no leadership that will make this happen.


Photographs courtesy of Debra Sweet, Thomasin Durgin, and humanrightsfilmfestival. Published under a Creative Commons License.

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